Lay the souls of the dead to rest in the newest game from Square Enix and Tokyo RPG Factory
In all my years of playing video games, I’ve found that the games I enjoy the most fall into one of three categories. First, of course, are the big budget AAA games―the attention grabbing titles forged from having millions and millions of dollars funnelled into their development (and marketing). It comes as no surprise when these games are good after months and months worth of footage and impressions have already circulated. Next are the beautiful disasters. These are the games so erroneously awful that they somehow loop back around and become outrageously entertaining. A rare breed of game for sure, but a fun one nonetheless.
The types of games that make up the third category, though, are the ones nearest and dearest to my heart. These games release with little fanfare and acclaim. Their graphics and gameplay are rarely anything to write home about and their fan bases are quite small. The fans they do have, though, are passionate ones. Whatever they might lack in polish and development funds, to their fans they more than make up for it with their ambitious ideas and unique stories. These games are the raw gemstones of the video game industry. Underneath all the rough, jagged edges a captivating game can be found. ONINAKI―the latest game from Square Enix and Tokyo RPG Factory on Steam, Switch, and PS4―is one of these games.
Death is held in high regard in the world of ONINAKI, such so that grief is strictly forbidden. Grief shackles the spirits of the dead to the world of the living. Unable to reincarnate, these spirits are known as the Lost. Should the Lost continue to wander in this form, they’ll eventually transform into monsters known as the Fallen. Rare individuals who can travel between the worlds of the living and the dead are known as Watchers. These Watchers aide in the cycle of reincarnation by eliminating the Fallen and ushering the Lost onto their next lives. It’s in this world that ONINAKI sets its sights on Kagachi―a stoic Watcher well-acquainted with grief. A chance encounter with an ageless girl named Linne and the vengeful spirit pursuing her sets Kagachi off on a bloody journey to discover the truth about reincarnation.
From the outset there are noticeable conflicts happening within ONINAKI. The first is between the game’s art style and its actual content. The game is presented in a beautiful 3D quasi-chibi style not unlike Bravely Default. It’s textures can look rather flat and its environments angular, but there’s a certain quality to the lighting that gives it a realistic sense of depth. This combination gives its world and characters an overall cute, toy-like appearance. Imagine my surprise, then, when the game’s tutorial chapter concluded with me executing a pair of grief-stricken parents who were mourning the death of their son.
ONINAKI is a game that’s infatuated with death, and as such treads in some rather dark territory. The Watchers’ order exists less to protect the citizens of the realm than it does to uphold the tenets of reincarnation. This can mean anything from stopping “unsanctioned killings” at the hands of monsters and serial killers to euthanizing the sick and assisting the hopeless in committing suicide. The game never clearly attempts to comment on these controversial topics or the debates being held over them around the world. It instead simply presents them as the natural result of a religious order that worships death.
Death and reincarnation as objects of worship are central to the other major conflict within ONINAKI. Though there are specific, named enemies Kagachi finds himself in conflict with throughout the game’s story, the ultimate conflict Kagachi faces is between himself and his faith in reincarnation. That much is fairly obvious from the beginning, but the twists and turns that take place throughout the story and the conclusions he’s ultimately led to are best left experienced by oneself.
My feelings on the story by the end were honestly pretty mixed. ONINAKI’s premise is novel and intrigued me instantly. The game’s gradual worldbuilding felt like a breadcrumb trail made up of bits and pieces of truth about the world that led all the way to the story’s final big reveal. It was a rewarding experience that had me constantly on the hook for the next morsel of information. It unfortunately fumbles, though, when it comes to writing Kagachi. He’s a bland and boring character in a game that lacks a party of lively personalities to make up for his lack of one. It’s hard to ever understand what he’s thinking, so his eventual moments of “character growth” come across less as believable actions and more things he has to do because he’s the hero. That combined with some pacing issues in the game’s second half are the biggest issues in an otherwise pretty good story.
Still, though, a good story on its own probably isn’t enough to recommend. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be, because ONINAKI is actually pretty fun to play too! When not experiencing the story, players will be running around 3D areas battling hordes of Fallen with spiritual weapons called Daemons. Daemons are rare beings who were unable to reincarnate yet too strong-willed to become Fallen. Only elite Watchers are able to possess and wield a Daemon. You start off with one sword-wielding Daemon in ONINAKI, but as you explore and progress through the story you’ll find many more each with their own unique weapons and combat styles. Up to four Daemons can be equipped at a time and can be cycled through as you please during battle.
Every Daemon starts off with a basic attack and one special skill that can be triggered on a cooldown. As you continue to fight with that Daemon defeated enemies have a chance of dropping upgrade items called Soulstones unique to the Daemon you’re using. Each Daemon has a unique skill tree where these Soulstones can be exchanged for new skills, passive buffs, and even memories from that Daemon’s past life. Each Daemon has their own set of stats separate from Kagachi’s increasing stat levels and Soulstone drops are rather generous, so upgrading a newly acquired Daemon to the level of your very first is a fairly easy task.
The Daemons are easily one of ONINAKI’s best features. Unlocking new Daemons adds a lot of variety to the game’s combat. In the interest of time I mainly stuck to two Daemons―one for fighting normal enemies and another for boss battles―but had I more time I would have tried to grind out the skill trees of the rest as well. While grinding out these skill trees is nowhere near a herculean task, it isn’t a very fun one. A few of the passive skills locked away in every Daemon’s skill trees are features that simply make combat less fun to be without. The simple ability to cancel out of skills, attacks, and a Daemon’s unique mobility option is essential to a satisfying combat flow, so it’s rather frustrating to have that feature locked away behind multiple upgrades. I’d say it takes about a full level of forcing yourself to use the Daemon you want to use to be able to upgrade them to a point where they’re actually fun to use. Stick with it, though, and they can become absolute wrecking balls.
The various Daemons found throughout the game are also, surprisingly, the game’s best characters. Not only are their designs all quite captivating, but also their individual stories are some of the best writing in the entire game. Each Daemon was once a living soul within the world of ONINAKI, and as you go through their skill trees you’ll receive pieces of their backstory and find out how each one of them died. In addition to being well-written side stories in their own right, they tie in to the central narrative and themes of ONINAKI as well. At a certain point, I found myself wanting to upgrade my Daemons less for the combat benefits and more so I could learn more about them. In fact, once I finish this review I plan on going back and doing just that. Given how much time was put into fleshing them out as characters, it’s an honest shock that Daemons never factor into the story as anything other than a weapon.
Looking back on my time with ONINAKI, I think it can be best summed up as a game that’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s an odd patchwork of concepts and ideas―weird, ambitious ideas that don’t always make a lot of sense or even feel like finished thoughts. It’s a conflicting game that strikes conflicting tones, a decision reflective of the many dualities presented in the narrative. There are two sides to this story, two worlds to jump between, two names for our heroes, two choices to make at the very end, and two moments I’ll remember most from my time with ONINAKI. The first was a moment of loss; the other an inconsequential choice. ONINAKI may not be my favorite game, but it is my favorite type of game, one I’ll be recommending for years to come.
+ Beautiful soundtrack
+ Good character designs and well-realized art style
+ Daemon side stories contain some of the best writing in the game
+/- Novel premise and strong ideas that mostly carry on to a satisfying conclusion
+/- Gameplay is varied and interesting, though some boss encounters are altogether frustrating
- Essential quality of life combat features are locked behind upgrades
- Kagachi is a really dull protagonist
How does ONINAKI compare to your favorite Square Enix RPGs? Let us know in the comments below!